Children need to start thinking in a different way if they are to be ready for a world of work that will be heavily reliant on computers, writes Ailin Quinlan. A Microsoft project is using the hugely popular game of Minecraft to highlight how teachers need to be upskilled if this is to happen
Imagine being lucky enough to have a teacher who’s willing to put sums and geography aside for a while to let you play Minecraft?
For most school-kids, game-based learning in the classroom is the stuff of daydreams — but it’s exactly what 31 sixth class pupils in Dermot Walsh’s class at St Anne’s primary school in Dublin’s Shankill got to do.
The 12- and 13-year-old boys and girls used the popular Minecraft game to design and build a town set 100 years in the future for a competition run by Microsoft.
The project also formed part of a PhD research project being carried out by their teacher in collaboration with Dr Richard Millwood, Course Director, MSc Technology and Learning at Trinity College Dublin — the findings of which are being presented at a major conference in Trinity College this week.
The idea, says Dr Millwood, was to discover whether working together to design and construct this futuristic town through game-playing in the classroom encouraged children to think in a different, more “computational” way.
Computational thinking, which is a way of solving problems, designing systems and understanding human behaviour that draws on concepts fundamental to computer science, is considered to be one of the key skills required for 21st century learners to be prepared for the modern workforce. However, although this was the over-arching question for the research, the study threw up a range of interesting issues for all students and their teachers.
“In all walks of life people are using computers to solve problems. They design solutions to problems using computers, so what ways of thinking do they employ?” asks Dr Millwood.
What can modern children learn to prepare them for life in terms of work and academia in a world where computers are used for nearly everything?
He emphasises this is not about ensuring that everyone ends up writing computer programmes. It’s about the fact that children may need to understand how computers are used to solve problems in order to prepare effectively, both for the workforce and for modern life — even, he believes, in the pursuit of creative activities such as writing, art or music. “It is simply important to know and have some understanding of how computers can be used to design solutions,” he says.
It was to this end that he and Dermot Walsh collaborated in a research project in which Mr Walsh’s 18 female and 13 male pupils engaged in the MindRising Competition run by Microsoft, which required them to design a town using Minecraft.
“We wanted to see if their exposure to the game would lead them to thinking more in this computational way, rather than just enjoying the game,” says Dr Millwood.
The children certainly displayed some computational thinking, he reports, but equally interestingly, they showed a reassuring grasp of important skills such as negotiation, collaboration, organisation, self-direction and good team work.
“It was fantastic to see how well they collaborated to choose their goals.
“They were building a town and they became good at negotiating, interacting with each other and seeking help from each other. It also encouraged team work.
“The children showed perseverance, concentration for extended periods of time and were coming up with creative solutions for the problem they faced,” he says, pointing out that adults often underestimate children’s ability to persevere and be creative.
“It was very heart-warming to see how they cooperated. The children were very interested in the activity and very curious. They learned a considerable amount about architecture, design of space, and the way we live, about what rooms can contain as well as geography, design and architecture.” However, there was another significant outcome from the exercise, he recalls. It is one which is possibly relevant in the context of the recent request by Education Minister, Richard Bruton, that consideration be given by the National Council for Curriculum Assessment to ensuring children get an opportunity to develop the flexible and creative thinking skills that are the basis of computer science and coding.
The experiment at St Anne’s, says Dr Millwood, highlighted the fact that there is a very clear need for teachers to be equipped to intervene in games and exercises like this in order to encourage computational thinking on the part of children.
Teachers need to be able to ask searching questions and encourage the children to think beyond the practical side of the task, he believes, but in order to do this, he points out, they must be knowledgeable about the software.
“This is the challenge to any country. How do we help our teachers to be up to speed with the problems that are in front of us?
“For us to help children be as capable as they can be we have to know how to question them as they proceed.
“This was one small research programme within the PhD but what it showed us is the need for knowledge on behalf of teachers, so they can intervene and encourage dialogue about higher order thinking. It’s not enough to just let children at it.” Furthermore, he says, introducing these skills to children is not just about teaching them coding – it’s about understanding problem solving through the tool of computing.
“What this project shows is a need for considered intervention by a teacher to maximise what the child learns. My opinion is that this is a good thing for children to be doing — to be creative and to focus and work together. However we need to be concerned about whether teachers are being prepared for this.
“It is important that in this kind of activity the teacher would be well placed to develop the children’s higher order thinking skills, and make this an opportunity for deep learning.
“I want to see the computer used as a stimulus for even better learning and to do that we need to develop the knowledge of teachers and not just buy computers for schools.”
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved